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Why do we collect things?

Adeline Wong posits: Childhood distress.

In the ’90s, my mother kept bus tickets. A modest collection, but there was something appealing about those little paper slips neatly stacked in a mini tower. This may seem anachronistic but, in the weird and wonderful world of collections, anyone can collect, well, anything. In North Carolina, for instance, a dermatologist has amassed a Guinness- record repository of 675 backscratchers. Others, like the Rockefellers and their art collection, exhibit a patrician fondness for expensive collectibles.

“Even a person who disavows the material world collects something – life experiences, successes, respect from peers.”

What drives this passion that seems attached to the human condition? After all, even a person who disavows the material world collects something – life experiences, successes, perhaps respect from peers. In his 1994 book Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger traces this desire to a person’s formative years. When a child feels anxiety from being alone when a parent is away, a soft toy or pillow gives comfort, and this material attachment represents the first passion for possession.

Acquiring something brings about a sense of relief, an emotion that echoes a childhood sentiment – and is “not simply recreational but an enriching respite from the sometimes frustrating demands of everyday life”, says the author. He points to one conspicuous trait being the continual desire to add to one’s collection.

What else might explain the psychology of an avid collector? A 2014 study proposes that a collection is likely to begin when one already owns a few similar objects. The tipping point comes when the person is unable to reconcile their enjoyment of the object with the wastefulness of having more than one of it and justifies this by seeking additional items to form a defensible set. Whatever the cause, what is common among collectors is the excitement and spirited discussion on the topic of their prized possessions. I once spent two hours listening to a gem collector trace his journey over a Zoom call (I enjoyed his stories, too).

This phenomenon is so entrenched that the English lexicon abounds with specific words to describe collectors: grabatologist, scribophile and numismatist, to name a few. While what is deemed valuable varies, luxury items are always in favour, due to a storied history, great craftsmanship, or simply ingenious marketing. Also winning the popularity stakes are toys. I know because I am hooked on Pop Mart blind-box dolls, as is a whole swathe of mostly female fans – based on anecdotal evidence comprising like-minded enthusiasts.

Muensterberger would say that I find comfort in them, while the divergent theory holds that I want full sets. Wang Ning, the 33-year-old founder of the Beijing-based Pop Mart company, probably couldn’t care less, with sales spiking from US$22 million (S$30 million) in 2017 to US$73 million in 2018. Revenue last year hit US$240 million. Unsurprisingly, in July, Forbes christened him a new billionaire. I probably have something to do with that.

Featured image: Up-close complications owned by Dr Bernard Cheong, displayed at JeweLuxe Singapore 2018 : The Peak Savoir Series 

 

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